Dell Knew Family In Case That Sparked Policy Change

Commissioners Say Decision Based On Merits

June 23, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

Commissioner President Donald I. Dell ordered county zoning inspectors to ease up on enforcement efforts, partly in response to citationsthat have disturbed a farming family he has known for about 50 years.

Zoning Enforcement Chief George L. Beisser is scheduled to meet with Dell on Friday to discuss the Erma Maxine Bixler case, which generated three zoning violations, and implementation of the new enforcement policy.

Beisser said he believes the Bixler case prompted the May 16 memo, signed by Dell, which orders zoning enforcers to respond only to complaints and to situations posing an obvious threat to public health and safety.

The policy is an interim measure while zoning law revisions are being considered, Dell said.

In another case influencingthe policy change, Department of Permits and Regulations Director J.Michael Evans offered to refund to Finksburg resident Doris Edwards the $15 she paid for a zoning certificate, while allowing her to retain the certificate.

After being threatened with a citation in April, Edwards complained to county officials, arguing that her home-based crafts occupation should be permitted under county zoning regulations.

Evans said he offered to pay back Edwards out of his own pocket -- even though the county attorney had informed her that a zoning certificate was required -- because "she seemed incredibly distressed at having to spend $15." He said he later discovered that Edwards, who turned down the offer, was more disturbed by the principle of the issue.

Dell said both the Bixler and Edwards complaints helped persuade him to take action.

Previously, zoning enforcers cited violations -- such as junk vehicles, junkyards and illegal signs and structures -- through routine patrols and while en route to investigate complaints. In 1990, routine patrols resulted in 337 investigations; complaints from residents spurred 277 responses.

Dell said county inspectors are citing too many "picayune" zoning violations, such as junk cars on farms and home businesses, causing unnecessary annoyances.

Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. said the case of the Bixlers -- who clearly violated zoning laws -- "had something to do" with the policy change.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said she disagrees with the policy and wasn't aware it was handed down. She says relaxing enforcement could result in a littered countryside.

Bixler was cited May 7 and 8 for maintaining a "race track" for all-terrain vehicles, storing unlicensed vehicles, scrap metal, pipe and other debris and mobile home violations in the 3500 block of Bixler Church Road, a farm north of Westminster.

Mark Bixler, Erma's son, met with Dell to discuss the violations. Dell, 66, a Westminster farmer, said that he has known the Bixler family since childhood through farming community involvements and that he attended school with Mark Bixler's deceased father, Guy. The Dell family once farmed land owned by the Bixlers, he said.

Mark Bixler, 34, said he intentionally met with Dell -- the man from whom he bought his first calf as a teen-ager -- rather than with either Lippy or Gouge.

"I know him; he's a farmer too," said Bixler, a part-time farmer and utility operator at Genstar Stone Products Co.

Dell said he treated the Bixlers the same as he would strangers. "They got my interest because of the nature of the citations.

"They felt the way I did -- that we're infringing on property rights to have to apply and get permits to do the things they felt they should be free to do," he said.

Lippy said he supports Dell.

"I know Donald is the type of man who would look at the case not because the man is a fellow farmer, but on the merits of the issue alone," Lippy said.

Dell said the Bixlers did a favor for children and other farmers by allowing ATV riders to use a meadow for recreation. ATV riders have been known to destroy crops.

He said the scrap-iron pile should not be cited as a violation because Mark Bixler uses the metal to repair equipment by welding.

Citing farmers for such violations "seems unreasonable," Dell said. He added that hehad qualms about the "nuisance aspect" of zoning regulations before becoming commissioner last year.

The Bixlers have been cited several times, dating back to 1983, for living in a recreational vehicle on the property and storing about 15 junk vehicles, tires and other debris.

Mark Bixler said he has resolved some of the current violations.

Gouge said she was unaware of Bixler's visit, but said she isnot concerned that Dell knows the Bixlers, unless their relationshipinfluenced Dell's policy decision.

The commissioners should negotiate with residents to resolve disputes, but regulations shouldn't bechanged because some individuals complain, she said.

"If the reasons were personal, it's not proper," she said.

"Sometimes people complain a lot, but if you have a policy in place that's doing its job, you go forward. Any time a policy is changed, it has to be for the betterment of the county."

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